Some lessons stick with you. Every once in a great while, a person will offer a single nugget of advice to you that is pure gold, and you hold onto it forever. I have just such a lesson, and it bears sharing.
I joke that I grew up at an animal hospital. My mom was the clinic receptionist for thirty years, at first working “school hours” so she could be home with me in the afternoons. In the summers and during holidays I went to work with her. I would perch myself in the window above the filing cabinets and watch all the people and animals parade in and out. I would watch my mother answer phones, laugh with clients and coo over puppies. I became such a fixture at the hospital during the summers that I often got to shadow the doctors and staff while they worked.
I loved that animal hospital. I loved the cubby hole with the avocado green laminate in which my mom spent her days. I loved the staff who let me play in the supplies, and the doctors who let me watch procedures. I loved the coke machine that held real bottles, and the copy machine with its thermal paper. I loved the intercom system, which I would play with during the lunch hour. I loved the medicine closet with its louvered doors, where I could hide if an angry animal came in.
I didn’t love the ferret who bit my thumb and made me get a tetanus shot, but that’s another story.
As I grew up and the process of maturing became more complicated, what with boys and band and the occasional girl fight, my mom’s co-workers would listen to my problems and offer advice. One particular day when I was struggling with I-don’t-even-remember-what-but-it-had-me-at-the-point-of-tears, mom’s boss, Dr. Willis, sat me down in his office and cleared a space on his always-cluttered desk. He retrieved a single paper towel (this was before the days of select-a-size, so it was a perfect 11-inch square) and laid it on his desk. He said to me, “I’m going to show you how important this matter is right now. It’s got you pretty upset, but just look…this paper towel is your whole life…”
He took a ballpoint pen and somewhere off-center on the paper towel he drew a single, tiny speck of a mark. It barely showed in the pattern of the paper towel.
“This dot I just drew…that’s what you’re going through right now. When you look at your whole life, this moment, this junk that you have to deal with as a teenager, it’s pretty insignificant, isn’t it?”
I had to agree that it certainly looked insignificant on the paper towel, but it felt like it would crush me before the day was over.
“Yes, it feels like it’s pretty bad now while you’re in the middle of it, but once you move away from the dot and into the rest of your life, it won’t matter anymore. So it’s best if you start moving away from it now.” He pointed to the paper towel. “See? You’ve got a lot of living to do! Don’t let that one dot get in your way.”